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Asylum Seekers Face Uncertainty in Croatia

Every time she applies for asylum, Farah must recount what happened to her and her family in Syria. She must write about the instability and danger they faced every day in her hometown of Damascus. She must remember pulling her three children in close as they walked down the street so that, if a bomb dropped, they would at least all die together.

"I hate to remember all my story. How I got here, getting negative," Farah's voice trails off.

Nearly two years ago, Farah's family made the difficult choice to leave Syria. They had lived in both Russia and Croatia years before while her husband, a business owner from Lebanon, opened restaurants. They remembered the people of Croatia and their time in Zagreb fondly. Rather than starting over in a new place where they would have no knowledge of the language, understanding of the culture, or connections to local population, they decided to return to Croatia. Mostly, Farah likes how peaceful Zagreb is.

Farah and her son play with a foosball table her children made by hand in their apartment in Zagreb.

Farah and her children came to Croatia’s capital by plane in 2015 and immediately began renting a flat. Her children soon enrolled in school, and Farah began the legal paperwork to apply for asylum. Her husband wasn’t able to join them until this April, but when he arrived he found a home. His family was renting a furnished apartment, his kids were established at school, and everyone had improved their Croatian. Best of all, they had friends in the city. Everything was in order except for one essential thing: the paperwork.

It turns out that Farah's husband’s Lebanese nationality had complicated the family’s asylum proceedings. After waiting for 9 months, they were given a negative. The family and their lawyer petitioned the courts, but they were rejected again. Up until now, they have stayed in Croatia on a temporary visa based on their 17-year-old daughter Rana's enrollment in school. But this is not a permanent solution, and the family feels uncertain about their future in Croatia.

“We can’t think about any plans,” Farah reflects.

They will apply again, and continue to integrate into Croatian life for the time being. Her husband wants to open his own restaurant in Zagreb, and Farah hopes to work once they have the proper paperwork. “I start to go to training in one cosmetic salon,” she says. The training is difficult because it is entirely in Croatian, but Farah likes the women who work there very much.

So far, all three children enjoy school and their classmates. Rana loves languages and is currently learning Spanish in school, while the 12-year-old twins, Nawar and Jamal, like to invent and build things by hand. They are excited to share the many homemade art projects they have created, including a miniature foosball table and stage with individualized clay characters.

One of the children's many creations -- a miniature stage -- offers them a small space to express their creativity.

The hardest part for everyone is missing the family remaining in Syria. "Now I’m two years here. I, of course, miss my parents in Syria, but I can’t go," Farah states. The kids say it would be too difficult and dangerous to go back and see their grandparents. They immediately recall all the checkpoints they know they must get through to enter Syria, imagining what an attempted return could entail. For now, they all wait to hear from the government, living each day with the hope that they will be able to remain in their new Croatian home.

Emina Buzinkic, an activist of the Welcome Initiative and Centre for Peace Studies, says "my heart is broken for Farah. Her case shows that the Croatian state has made a strong political decision to deny asylum to those seeking humanitarian status and to refugees in general."

When refugees from other parts of the world hear that a Syrian family has been denied asylum in Croatia, they begin to worry even more about their own fate. After all, Syrians, especially those with children, are the most likely to get asylum of any current refugee population. If Farah's family is having difficulty, what hope is there for young male refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere?

Buzinkic adds that Croatia's low rate of granting protection to asylum-seekers "brings under scrutiny the Dublin system." The Dublin Regulation was created to spread the responsibility of granting asylum fairly among European Union member states. However, its recent enforcement includes removing asylum-seekers from countries where they have been living for months or years, and sending them to countries where they haven't spent more than a few hours.

Reza and his family are an example of such a case.

Reza moves a couch so that his friends can eat outside at Kutina's asylum center in Croatia.

When he arrived at his regular church service over a year ago, Reza didn't know the events to follow would change his fate irreparably.

"We were in the church in Iran," he stops. Then, after a moment, collects himself and says, "police come and we have to run."

Ten days after his church was raided by police, Reza and his brother, along with his brother's wife and her sister, left the place where they had spent their entire lives.

He explains that if you're born a Muslim in Iran and convert to Christianity, or another religion, you must practice your faith in secret. And if you're found out, the consequences can be grave.

Reza is only 16 years old, but was forced to leave his country and parents for this very reason. When I ask what would have happened to him and his brother if they stayed at their home after the police raided the underground church they attended, he simply said "prison, or Iran kill us."

After a long journey from Turkey following the Balkan Route, Reza arrived in Austria 18 months ago. An avid runner and volleyball player, he found his place among sports teams.

With some mix of pride and loss in his eyes, he tells me: "I have one [trophy] for about five kilometer, I think it’s 20 minutes, and one cup for 10 kilometer in 44."

Reza shows the running awards he was given during his time in Austria.

Reza learned German quickly, enrolled in high school, and moved in to a small house with his brother's family. They found a local church they liked and, for the first time in their lives, they were able to attend services openly without fear of persecution.

That was until one day about eight months ago.

Everyone except for his brother, Puria, was at a church service when immigration officials came for his family. When Reza arrived home from the service, his brother was gone. They later received a call informing them of Puria's whereabouts, and joined him in prison the next day for two nights before being deported to Croatia.

Reza's brother and sister-in-law chat in the room that the whole family shares in Kutina's asylum center.

Though Reza and his family only spent one night in Croatia ten months before, they had their fingerprints taken by the police there. They were being sent back as a part of the Dublin Regulation. Reza is unable to attend school until he can speak Croatian. But, unlike Austria, there aren't many resources for learning the language here.

After eight months of living in Croatia's Kutina Camp, Reza's family received a negative response to their asylum application. If they are returned to Iran, they fear death or imprisonment. But they still have faith. "God is with us," Reza tells me.

Refugee children look out beyond the fence of Kutina asylum center at neighboring Croatian farmers working their fields.

Down the stairs from Reza's family lives a young man named Rashed.

Rashed grew up in a Taliban-controlled city in Afghanistan. His mother died of a heart condition when he was only three years old, so Rashed and his brother were raised by their father. They were never able to attend school because of the fighting in their city.

One day, when Rashed was 14, his father went to buy food for his family at the local marketplace. Fighting broke out between the Taliban and the police, and his father was killed.

Then, the Taliban came knocking. They wanted to recruit Rashed and his brother to fight for them. Rashed saw only two possibilities for his future if he stayed in Afghanistan: he could either kill for the Taliban, whom he despised, or die at their hands. Rashed fled.

Rashed prepares coffee for the volunteers and refugees at Kutina's asylum center.

He and his brother traveled through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia. When they finally reached Slovenia, the authorities detained him.

Rashed was terrified that he and his brother would be returned to Afghanistan. "In Afghanistan, too much war," he says. Unable to express in words how much hatred he has for the Taliban, Rashed shows me videos of a 17-year-old girl from his city being stoned to death after being seen in public with a boy outside her family. "In Slovenia, I think again going Afghanistan," Rashed shakes his head while the video continues to play. "I’m too much scared."

To his relief, Rashed and his brother were only sent back to Croatia. However, after many months living in Kutina camp, new fears surfaced. Rashed's brother escaped to Germany, but had to leave Rashed behind. Rashed is alone. He must learn Croatian before the already intimidating process of entering the education system for the first time. He wishes to practice gymnastics or join a soccer team, but there are no options for him near his camp. He has no family, no healthy outlet for his energy, and no proper support for his educational aspirations. Rashed is starting to lose hope. After applying, he was not granted asylum in Croatia and filed for an appeal.

Rashed watches over the child of another refugee who lives in Kutina's asylum center.

"I don’t know why I not get asylum paper," he laments. "I think people in Croatia say 'you are terrorist' because my city is too much Taliban."

Though no formal reason was given, Rashed is frightened that the terrorism he escaped may still control his destiny. Almost two years after fleeing the Taliban, he is still trying to outrun that destiny.

Weeks after our interview, Rashed's appeal for asylum was denied. He currently waits in Kutina's asylum center fearing further deportation.

Some names have been changed to protect the subjects' anonymity.

Christiana Botic is a documentary photographer and filmmaker as well as a 2016-2017 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. During her fellowship, she spent 9 months in Serbia and Croatia exploring the complex relationship between geography and identity in the region. Follow her @christianabotic on Instagram.

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